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The Earliest Romans: A Character Sketch, by Ramsay MacMullen

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 193. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $65.00. ISBN: 047211798X.

In The Earliest Romans, Prof. MacMullen (Emeritus Yale) gives us what he calls an “essay” that explores the Roman national character and its influence on their rise to greatness, rather than a weighty tome on Roman history down to 264 BC, when the conquest of Italy had been completed.

MacMullen, author of numerous works in Roman history, culture, and politics, among them Romanization in the Time of Augustus and Christianizing the Roman Empire, divides the book into two parts, the age of the kings (from the origins of the city to 509 BC) and the early republic (509-264 BC).  In each both part he looks at events by examining the basic features of Roman society.  He argues convincingly that the Romans were consistently conservative, tolerant, aggressive, and practical.  These traits accounted for the relative stability of Roman institutions, their willingness to accept others as Romans, their expansionism, and their ability to integrate new ideas into their institutions.  So most often, conquered peoples became Romans, rather than subjects, while enriching Roman society with some of their social, cultural, and religious ideas, and particularly even military institutions, the Romans being very open to using ideas and technology borrowed from erstwhile foes. 

Well written, and full of interesting insights, The Earliest Romans is an excellent book for the non-specialist wishing to in learn something of the earliest period of Roman history, and even for the specialist seeking some new ideas and insights.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


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